Are traditional conferences dead? Challenging the conventional event format

Juraj Holub

Last year I had a chance to personally attend dozens of conferences both as a speaker and as an attendee. I watched another dozen events online.

Gradually, I started noticing some unflattering patterns and in many cases the following scenario happened:

Organizers brought in 150-300 delegates and had them seated in the auditorium room set-up (a row after a row). The agenda consisted of five to eight 60-minute long ‘keynotes’ with a few networking breaks in-between.

The sessions’ format was designed for one-way presentations with a very limited if any space for interaction. After the first two talks, participants suffered from ‘death by powerpoint’ and lost whatsoever interest in what was happening on stage.

In case it was a 2-day conference, multiply the scenario above by two.

While some predicted the extinction of these traditional conferences years ago, it seems that many event planners are still not willing to fully let them go. However, with the rapidly changing social and technological climate, the time for a radical shift is imminent.

Below I present the tendencies that challenge the current malfunctioning conference model. At the same time, I provide a few ideas that might help event organizers to redesign the obsolete conference format.

Content is everywhere

There is so much informational and motivational content on the Internet these days. The official TED website alone features nearly 2000 talks presented by some of the most influential people on the planet. And that excludes all other TED-x videos, Coursera online courses, and myriads of other footages that cover literally every possible topic.

Attendees don’t need to go physically to a conference to hear an expert any more! They can watch a video or read an article at their convenience and save hundreds of dollars. So the big question is: What do delegates want to learn at events?

New approach

The question is not only about what. It’s also about how. How participants learn has become as important as what knowledge they’re seeking to acquire.

According to Brandon Hall Group’s study, 85 percent of companies are currently experimenting with social learning techniques where people learn from one another via observation and imitation. The companies recognize that people want to learn through interaction, collaboration, and sharing.

Conferences are a perfect place where event organizers can mirror a professional environment and help delegates gain relevant knowledge via social learning.

Collaborative peer-to-peer session formats (such as discussion tables or campfire sessions among many others) allow delegates to engage in discussion with their peers, bring up their pains and share solutions. By default, these session formats carry a strong human element, which naturally endorses after-session networking.

Presentations in transformation

Let’s admit it. Presentations are here to stay but their format is (or should be) witnessing a radical transformation. TED has revolutionized presentations and story-telling like no other event has ever done before. Instead of letting speakers stretch 20-minute content to 60-minute to fill in the speaking slot, TED organizers capped the time to 18 minutes.

They set an example for thousands of event professionals and their speakers. And many have decided to follow their lead. And you should do the same..

New approach

Ask your speakers how much time they need in order to cover their topic. They might need only 15 minutes to deliver their message. Forcing them to stretch it to 45 minutes might cause vague, uninteresting delivery. Rather fill in the remaining minutes with Q&A and let your presenters respond to questions that the audience is craving to hear.

Some authors even suggest to abandon presentations altogether and have the Q&A instead! In fact, there are already the conferences, which are adopting this model. For instance, Saastr Annual conference, the largest gathering of Saastr founders, conducted onstage interviews with their guests instead of having them present slide after slide.

Saastr organizers noted on their website: “No endless slide shows. Instead, hands-on sessions that teach you how to do it. How to go from $0 to $100m in ARR. Faster, better, with less stress, and more success.”

Empowered audience

Until recently, delegates had little-to-no power to shape an event or a presentation they were attending. They were left completely at the mercy of event organizers and speakers. In many cases, they unfortunately still are but this trend is radically changing.

With the massive uptake of smartphones, most members of an audience are well equipped, tech-savvy and now have a means to express their thoughts and opinions. To make things even more complicated for event organisers, attendees expect to get engaged in a two-way conversation and have their say. Conferences are therefore no longer about one-way content broadcast. They’re more and more about its engaging delivery and meaningful interactions that emerge in the process.

And that’s where the second screen technology might come in handy..

New approach

Second screen technologies are enabling organisers to take audience engagement to a completely new level. In fact, they have a potential to turn the whole talk dynamic inside out, transforming presentations into two-way streets, putting participants behind the steering wheel so to speak.

While event tech can have a transformative power on events, no tech solution can save a tedious presentation or a boring event on its own. Event objectives always come first! Event technology should be just a means to achieve those goals. There is nothing worse than using the tech for the sake of using it.

Before you decide to use any tech solution, make sure to identify event objectives and only then select the tech that will help you to achieve those goals. Check out this article on evaluating new event tech before you make your choice.

The rise of networking

Practically every survey or Internet discussion reveals two main reasons why people attend conferences:

  • delegates want to learn what is relevant to them
  • delegates want to meet people and create new connections

While a large portion of time is dedicated to delivering stimulating content, a lot less attention is devoted to creating networking opportunities. Ironically, it seems that networking is more and more important for delegates. Dan Schwabel’s study on millennial audiences revealed that 86% of attendees expect networking opportunities from conference!

New approach

Connecting people during the sessions is the key to creating networking opportunities at events! The interactive peer-to-peer formats represent an excellent opportunity to give your participants a push and bring them together.

These new learning formats allow delegates to share their own experience and knowledge and thus naturally connect with one another. Participants can openly discuss topics that are relevant to them and create social ties in the process. These sessions can be then seamlessly bridged into the networking breaks without disrupting the ongoing conversations.

For more inspiration on how to bring people together, take a look at our article 7 tips for creating networking opportunities.

In summary

This article presented the trends that challenge the way how traditional conferences are done. It also outlined a few ideas how to redesign the outdated format and bring the change that the audience is so craving for.

So what are your thoughts on this topic? Are traditional conferences dead? Yes or no? Please share your opinion with us in the comments below.

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